The Seed of an Idea, the Idea of a Seed: Goethe’s Urpflanze in the 21st Century
Half a century before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe coined the word “Morphologie” to designate the science of form and transformation. Underlying this science was a concept of metamorphosis, according to which the form of any plant or animal is determined by the interaction of its generic type with environmental conditions, just as the pattern of a fabric—in Goethe’s analogy—is determined by the interweaving of warp and weft. Although Goethe’s approach to morphology has been outdated by current evolution-based and data-driven models, his vision of nature as a dynamic complex of organic and non-organic forces implies a conceptual framework that is as promising as it is problematic. Hence, despite the evident appeal of morphology for ecologists and conservationists, Goethe’s use of concepts drawn from the neoplatonic and idealist tradition—most notably the “supersensuous plant archetype” (“übersinnliche Urpflanze”)*—have long appealed to both conservatives and mystics, and set his writings under the suspicion of antiscientific romanticism. This essay will address the problematic idea of the Urpflanze byturning to the material context in which Goethe thought he might find it—a botanical garden—and its relation to fictional repositories of vegetal biodiversity in contemporary literature. Can the Urpflanze, divested of the anthroposophical trappings that it has garnered over time, be recognized in the collection of a modern scientific institute?
The Search for the Urpflanze
In the middle of his Italian journey, at the botanical gardens of Palermo, Goethe found himself closer than ever to the protean object of his new science: “Seeing such a variety of new and renewed forms, my old fancy suddenly came back to mind: Among this multitude might I not discover the Primal Plant [Urpflanze]? There certainly must be one. Otherwise, how could I recognize that this or that form was a plant if all were not built upon the same basic model?”* But here one must pause. What exactly is the Urpflanze, and why did Goethe expect to find it in Sicily of all places? On one interpretation, Goethe may have imagined that the garden’s sheer diversity would increase the odds that one of the many plants on display would turn out to be the common ancestor of the others. Whether or not this is true, it has little to do with his mature theory of morphology, which rejects the idea that any single species can be taken as the measure of the rest. It is more plausible that the garden’s diversity itself brought Goethe closer to the Urpflanze, by presenting him with similarities amid the manifold of botanical forms. In this sense, any botanical garden, considered as a whole, is a more or less adequate representation of the Urpflanze. This includes the garden in Jena that Goethe arranged according to relations of affinity (and not, for example, beauty).* It also includes the collection at Kew, which contains more botanical specimens than anywhere else in the world.
Once defined, the Urflanze can be recognized in any singular plant, but only on the condition that that plant not be viewed as a particular case of the abstract category of Plantae. As distinguished from its Linnean counterpart, the Urpflanze is better understood as a self-repeating sequence of metamorphoses—from seed to cotyledon, from cotyledon to leaf, from leaf to sepal, from sepal to petal, stamen, pistil, fruit, and seed—that is traversed over the course of every plant’s life, and that is repeated at the moment of reproduction. As Goethe was acutely aware, the problem with recognizing these metamorphoses as such is that they are often disguised within any one species. Hence the necessity of comparing plants across species, which allows for affinities that are hidden in the one to be recognized in the homologous structure of the other.* It was this possibility of comparison, supported by the biodiversity of a botanical garden, that justified Goethe’s expectation that he would “discover the Urpflanze among this multitude.” But it was likely the difference between the northern and southern climates that provided him with the key insight of his morphology: that external factors (light, humidity, soil conditions, etc.) influence the particular sequence of transformations that determine each plant’s development.
Goethe’s most condensed expression of the Urpflanze is given in his “Metamorphosis of Plants” (1797), a didactic poem that describes the development of a typical annual plant from sprout to seed: “And here nature closes the ring of eternal forces; yet a new one immediately connects itself to the previous, which extends the chain throughout all of time, enlivening both the whole and the singular.”* If both “the singular” (“das Einzelne”) and “the whole” (“das Ganze”) are enlivened by the act of reproduction, it is because the metamorphosis that determines each successive organ over the course of a plant’s life (the ring) extends to the relation between successive generations of plants over time (the chain). It is in the seed—not in the Platonic world of ideal forms—that the Urpflanze is to be sought: a modified leaf that has fallen from its parent, and that contains the sequence of transformations that will interact with environmental factors to define a new plant in nuce.
The New Metamorphosis
Motivated by an interest in the ontology of plants, the idea of plant metamorphosis has recently received increased attention. In his popular book “The Life of Plants,” Emanuele Coccia advances such an ontology against the traditional western philosophy that “seeks at all costs to be human and humanistic,” taking “Man” as the measure of all things.* Coccia re-evaluates two vegetal characteristics that have long served to justify the (ontological) inferiority of plants in comparison to animals: their lack of locomotion and “open form,” or the mode of growth that adapts itself to prevailing environmental conditions. Because a plant’s body consists of largely independent subunits, most of which are shed and replaced over the course of its life, this “open form” has historically been viewed as inferior to the relatively static organizational structure of animals. By contrast, Coccia understands the continual growth of a plant’s organs and parts as a great experiment of natural variation and differentiation: “Their body is a morphogenetic industry that knows no interruption. Plant life is nothing but the cosmic alembic of universal metamorphosis.”*
Coccia likewise reinterprets the lack of vegetal locomotion, which ties a grown plant to its place of germination, as “the most intense, radical, and paradigmatic form of being in the world.”* For Coccia, a plant’s being in the world is simultaneously the making of its world. More than this, it is a making of “our world” or the “medium” in which all life exits: the “climate.”* In a gesture of ontological decentering, Coccia shifts the emphasis from the impact of external circumstances on plants to the influence of plants on their environment. And while his vision departs in many respects from the eighteenth-century concept of metamorphosis, it rather resembles the “nexus of many elements” that Goethe described in a manuscript from 1794: “The whole kingdom of plants, for example, will appear to us as an enormous ocean that is as much a necessary condition for the existence of insects as are the world’s ocean and its rivers a necessary condition for the existence of fish, and we will see that a great number of living creatures are born and nourished in this ocean of plants.”* We are no exception.
The interaction of plant and environment has recently received special attention with regard to the so-called “Wood Wide Web,” in which nutrients and ‘information’ are exchanged between trees and fungi. Notwithstanding debates among biologists, the idea of such vegetable networks has captivated the collective imagination, having been disseminated not only through popular non-fiction, but also through novels such as Richard Powers’s The Overstory, which won the Booker Prize in 2019. In Powers’s novel, the fictional researcher Patricia Westerford publishes the book The Secret Forest, its title a clear reference to Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees.* For Westerford, deforestation is not only a threat to the climate, but is akin to “burning down the library, art museum, pharmacy, and hall of records, all at once.”* She begins to collect seeds in the awareness of the interconnectedness of natural and human history; of the fact that plants have not only served as resources for technical or medical use, but were part of artistic practices and broader cultural developments.* Westerford’s fictional seed bank is based on her insight that plants have undergone an immensely protracted metamorphosis in the history of their species, and that such an endeavor would amount to a “vault to store a few hundred million years of tinkering.”* Although this “ark”* is only able to preserve plants’ evolutionary history ex situ—in the form of seeds as a displaced record of local metamorphoses—Westerford makes it a principle not only to store the seeds of ‘useful’ plants, but to make her collection as comprehensive as possible: a general repository of vegetal versatility, hence of all botanical potentialities, and twenty-first century figuration of the Urpflanze.